Published on February 17th, 2017 | by Dean Love4
Time Run, London – The Celestial Chain
Spoiler warning: as normal, we’re not going to spoil any of the puzzles, or even the settings/time periods you’ll travel through in this review. However, The Celestial Chain has very different game mechanics to any other room we’ve played. And we are going to talk about those in some detail. There’s nothing here you won’t be told in the briefing anyway, but if you want to go in completely cold you may want to hold off reading this.
So, Time Run’s new room. Going in I figured this would be a tough review – last time around The Lance of Longinus just blew us away with its sheer visual impact: we had no idea escape rooms could look like movie sets. This time around, we’re expecting nothing less.
But what also makes this a hard review is that The Celestial Chain throws out the rule book on escape rooms entirely, and produces a very different experience. Yes, abstractly you’re still solving puzzles in rooms but the feelings created by the pacing and the design are very different. One criticism I’ve seen of Time Run’s first game is that some players felt a bit rushed, as the game needed to feed you enough hints to get you moved into the next room every 20 minutes. The Celestial Chain basically takes that complaint and builds an entire new game format around addressing it.
So let’s get to that design. You’ll travel through five time periods, supposedly spending twelve minutes in each. In three of these time periods you’ll be attempting to gather certain items by solving puzzles and tasks. There are five objects in each of these time periods. After twelve minutes you move on, regardless of how many you find. Finding three in each time period unlocks the “best” ending for the game. And this is no joke. See, we’ve done a lot of rooms but don’t consider ourselves particularly great at them. We get out of most rooms but rarely make the leaderboard. So when we exited The Celestial Chain having completed, by my counting, 12 of the 17 individual bits and were asked how we thought we’d done, our answer was “okay, we think?” – it turned out we were actually the second highest scoring team ever, with the first having only solved one more puzzle than us. Even though the room has only been open two months, it’s clear that only the very best teams are going to beat everything.
So this structure has a number of really interesting effects on what the experience feels like. By necessity, each room is completely non-linear. Teams that are content to split up are going to enjoy it, while those who like to see everything are going to feel like they’ve missed out on a lot. We were also playing with just three and it did feel that having a fourth would have been a big help. The structure also means that each room has one really hard puzzle or a puzzle that needs a quite specific skill set, without that being an issue. I’m also fairly sure one room had another puzzle that we never even found! And that all works because you’re not expected to solve everything.
It also has a huge impact on pacing. Most players will know that the last ten minutes of a room are generally the most tense, when you can see exactly how much time pressure you’re under and have an idea of how much you have left to go. The Celestial Chain starts like that and puts you back there every twelve minutes! Again, if that’s your favourite bit of a regular game, you’ll love this. If you find it a bit stressful, it may be a bit much! To counteract this a bit, most of the time periods don’t actually have a visible clock. You just get told “time to go” when you have around thirty seconds left. We had a wonderfully tense moment when at that point we had only one of the five item and managed to grab a further three in the very last few seconds as the doors to the next room opened. I guess theoretically you could “complete” a given room early and be stuck standing around (logistics spoiler: they reset each time period and bring the next team in once you’ve moved on), but it seems unlikely.
The more observant readers will have noticed I mentioned five time zones at the top and then went on to talk about three of them. That’s because there’s an extra one that breaks things up in the middle, and as a counter-point to the other zones, is almost entirely linear and requires a lot of teamwork, which really helps mix things up. And then there’s the finale. Which… well here’s where the whole pacing thing breaks down a bit because having had those tense moments at the end of each time period, you then don’t really get them at the end of the game. There’s no actual final puzzle, just a box ticking exercise, which is sort of understandable – you don’t want to do really well and end up ‘failing’ the game in terms of the story because you screwed up the last bit. But it does feel a tad anti-climactic. I mean the game tries really hard to fake it, with a loud tense countdown that had us panicking and running around like headless chickens trying to figure out what to do, only to discover we’d actually already done it and just needed to wait! Which left us feeling both relieved and a bit cheated. Then there’s an awesome visual moment and a neat conclusion to the story. (Minor gripe, and possibly down to me being very slightly hard of hearing, but the villain’s voice was processed to the point that I couldn’t really make out what she was saying and for a second wondered how I could get subtitles, which is also a testament to how much like being in a movie it felt!). I’m also fairly sure the finale wasn’t twelve minutes long, which meant that maybe some of the other bits are actually a bit longer.
So yeah. I loved it. But it scratched a different itch for me than escape rooms normally do. My go-to explanation for why I like these games is that it’s fun to take an hour to play in an interesting space with friends. I love exploring a room, picking away at its secrets, gradually pulling away layer after layer. The Celestial Chain doesn’t offer that. At 20 minutes per time zone, with linked puzzles, Time Run’s first game essentially just about provided that as three smaller experiences. With just 12 minutes per zone, there’s really no time for that. You just need to get in and get the puzzles solved, and hope your team-mates are doing the same in the other parts of the room! But that’s not a negative. Because I really like solving puzzles too. But it gave me the same sort of feeling as doing a very compressed puzzle hunt like DASH, rather than what you get from a ‘traditional’ escape room. (It also means the rooms are all a little smaller, and as such, less visually impressive than their previous game.)
I should mention the actual puzzles themselves as they’re really rather good. Each time zone isn’t just linked by setting, but by theme. So one is heavy on dexterity “skill” games, another on logic puzzles, another on communication. The second zone in particular does a lovely job of picking a single, fairly pedestrian concept and having variations on it in each of the individual puzzles.
Oh and as for the theme itself, that’s also a slight departure. Time Run’s first game gave me the impression of a sort of secret society operating within the real world. The Celestial Chain doubles down on the fantasy side of things, establishing an entire alternative history where Archimedes’ more crazy ideas actually became reality.
And that leads to a weird contradiction at the heart of what The Celestial Chain is trying do. It’s trying to be this interactive “live video game” experience with a heavy emphasis on story and adventure, by constantly pushing you forwards and progressing the plot via short vignettes at the end of each zone. The sense of exploration you get in a traditional room is replaced with a sense of travel and wonder as you progress through the environments. It’s very much “on rails”. All of which should combine to create a game where the emphasis is very much on story and adventure instead of puzzles. And I’d imagine if you’re new to this sort of thing, that’s just what you’ll get from it.
But as we’d played a few games, the knowledge that so many puzzles existed, and that we could theoretically beat them all, instead shifted the emphasis hugely on to those puzzles. We didn’t really feel like we could take time to soak in the atmosphere and setting as there was so much to do. Which again, isn’t a bad thing. But it comes back to that weird feeling of reaching the end in the knowledge we had left puzzles behind, and not really knowing what that meant, at least not until getting the debriefing and very detailed scorecard at the end. Perhaps a strong visual link between the artefacts you find and the conclusion of the story would help.
As an aside, the press release for The Celestial Chain floated the idea that it could be the first replayable escape game, with teams wanting to go back to try and get a higher score, and it really doesn’t achieve that. We saw enough we wouldn’t want to go back. At least not at £42 per person. It’s a hefty priced game but like the previous room, you can see where the money has gone.
Also worth noting that they were still tweaking the game at the point we played, the way we were scored certainly seemed different to how teams who’d played a month or so earlier were scored, and it’ll potentially change again.
But minor gripes aside, they’ve somehow created a room that can challenge the most hardcore of puzzle fans while still providing an exciting adventure for those who just want to spend an hour doing something cool. Which is quite the achievement.
Result – 104/100
Date played: 8 January 2017
Team: Dean, Katherine, Jess
Summary: A great game that somehow manages to appeal to veterans and new players alike, but very different from what you're used to.